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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Pieces of a Woman

'The Crown' star Vanessa Kirby plays a woman coping with trauma in this raw and resonant drama.
By Sarah Ward
December 29, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 29, 2020
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UPDATE, January 7, 2021: Pieces of a Woman screens in Sydney cinemas from Wednesday, December 30, and will be available to stream via Netflix from Thursday, January 7. 

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Everyone has heard the claim that women forget the pain of childbirth, with hormones and maternal stirrings washing away the agony of labour once a mother meets their bundle of joy. How true that proves is the subject of debate, but if you've only seen life brought into the world via on-screen depictions, you can be forgiven for subscribing to such a school of thought. Childbirth, like sex, is usually sanitised for cinema. Courtesy of thrusts, groans, screams and part-exhilarated, part-exhausted smiles, films typically convey the gist, rather than the nitty gritty. The visceral reality rarely exists in a fictionalised world of convenient meet-cutes, perfect make-up adorned faces and zero signs of sweat; however, thanks to a tense and harrowing 23-minute delivery scene that plays out in one continuous take, Pieces of a Woman doesn't shy away from the mess and chaos. It doesn't evade the devastation when a planned home birth not only experiences hiccups, but leaves Boston-based expectant mother Martha (Vanessa Kirby, Fast & Furious: Hobbs and Shaw) struggling to cope, either.

Martha won't forget what occurred when her water broke, her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy) remained by her side and midwife Eva (Molly Parker, Words on Bathroom Walls), a fill-in rather than the couple's first choice, delivered her baby. Neither will viewers of this daringly intimate drama from White God and Jupiter's Moon director-writer duo Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber. The unbroken birthing scene isn't the movie's first, but it does precede its title card — with the filmmakers making it plain that, after getting a front-row seat to Martha's trauma, the audience will now witness her attempts to stitch herself back together. That's Pieces of a Woman's storyline. Shattered instead of feeling ecstatic and complete, as she had anticipated, the feature's protagonist tries to work out how to go on. But her marriage has lost its lustre, her overbearing mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, House of Cards) won't stop giving her two cents — and trying to throw around piles of money to help a problem that can't be fixed by cash — and, at Sean and Elizabeth's urging, there's also a court case to deal with.

Pieces of a Woman doesn't lack narrative developments, involving both Martha and those in her bereaved orbit. Ex-alcoholic Sean also endeavours to process the situation, including falling back on old habits. His relationship with Elizabeth flips from bickering to conspiratorial, too; he's a construction worker, and his mother-in-law has always disapproved of his and Martha's class differences, but now they agree on what's best moving forward. Also having an impact: the involvement of Martha's lawyer cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook, Succession), and the attention that comes from pursuing legal proceedings. Martha can't escape any of the above, but they're the film's scaffolding, rather than the main attraction. These external ups and downs will all pass, while Martha's maelstrom of despair and anger will remain. Accordingly, after stepping through her life-changing moment in realistic detail, the movie makes the bold choice to explore its protagonist's emotional and mental state.

The Crown brought Kirby to broader fame and acclaim, earning her awards for her on-screen work after years of receiving them for her stage career — but, as stellar as she is in the regal drama, Pieces of a Woman is a career-best performance. She's tasked with weathering an ordeal rarely laid bare with such candour, and doing so via a dynamic and lived-in portrayal. She's asked to convey the torrential torment that Martha endures in every second after pushing through the contractions in Sean's embrace, holding their child in hers, and then suffering the worst type of absence. In the birth scene, she's primal and unfiltered in a way that's never seen on film. Afterwards, Kirby is glassy with and distant from those around Martha in a manner that rarely resonates as authentically as it does here. Pieces of a Woman is well-cast, and its star is ably matched — by Burstyn especially, particularly in one big monologue that rides a remarkable rollercoaster — but the intensity in Kirby as Martha crumples, yet remains resolute about her right to fracture and fray however she needs to, is near-overwhelming.

Mundruczó and Wéber tackle an array of weighty notions through Martha, and through Kirby's performance, the ravenous monster that is grief being one. Pieces of a Woman is heartbreakingly unrestrained in showing how it feels to navigate loss, specifically the kind that isn't often addressed in society let alone in cinema. It does so with disarming potency, as if everything within its frames has been ripped from truth by the filmmakers. Just as effectively, the movie also unpacks how women are constantly expected to stick to set roles, even when tackling what might be the most distressing thing that'll ever happen to a mother. That's where all the struggles with Sean, Elizabeth and the court case really strike a chord — because, no matter what's going on, Martha is always supposed to fit a type dictated by long-held ideas about being a woman, and her husband, mum and anyone else with an opinion can't quite accept her refusal to adhere to convention.

If Pieces of a Woman wasn't so deeply moving, some of its overt symbolism might've fallen flat, including repeated shots of a bridge being built by Sean, plus Martha's obsession with apples. And yet honesty reverberates from both, reflecting how easy it is to cling to anything and everything when life isn't progressing as planned. This excellent movie does spend its 126 minutes as intended, of course. From its attention-grabbing early sequence and intricate emotional landscape to its astonishing lead performance and its masterful direction — and its fittingly solemn score by Howard Shore (a two-time Oscar-winner for The Lord of the Rings) and roaming yet lingering visuals lensed by Benjamin Loeb (Mandy), too — it plunges viewers headfirst into Martha's experience. Nothing has been sanitised for anyone's comfort or protection here, either by the filmmakers or by their unforgettably real and raw central character.

Top image: Benjamin Loeb / Netflix.

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